One of the wackier NBA regular seasons in history is over, for better or worse, and the two-month playoff run is set to begin. With the first round upon us, the minds at Ball Don’t Lie decided to preview each series. We continue with San Antonio and Memphis.
How They Got Here
• San Antonio: Well, in May of 1996 the Spurs suffered a disappointing second round loss to the Utah Jazz. Coupled with an early season foot injury to David Robinson to start the next season, this allowed general manager Gregg Popovich to fire then-coach Bob Hill. Robinson then broke the foot again, knocking him out for the season and …
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It genuinely does go back that far. San Antonio’s current strata – one that ranks them as the winningest No. 2 seed in NBA history, all stems from the fact that a confluence of unfortunate events allowed them to draft Tim Duncan in June, 1997. Draft a college senior in Tim Duncan, mind you, not some preps-to-pros kid with a few years to sop up before he hit his early 20s.
It was that foundation that allowed them to take chances on draft picks both at the end of the second round (Manu Ginobili), the late first (Tony Parker), the middle of the first (Kawhi Leonard), while showcasing an alluring free agent presentation for LaMarcus Aldridge last summer.
On the fly, Popovich slowed down his team’s roll around Aldridge, who by midseason had found his druthers on both sides of the ball. Unafraid to sit Duncan due to rest issues for years, Popovich now sat him for matchup advantages without his Hall of Famer making a peep. The Spurs have been the league’s best defense by a wide margin all year; they pulled in 67 wins, and rank as the league’s best shot to see the defending champion Golden State Warriors knocked off.
• Memphis: Through more hardship, struggle and woe.
The Grizzlies employed 28 players this year. For those that are just hopping on the NBA’s train in time for the postseason (and that’s just fine!), 15 players is the limit to hold at one time, and the team entered the season with a roster full of guaranteed deals. This means, due to an unending stream of injuries, the team had to nearly double up its roster with a host of players that built up to, through one-year of pro-rated contracts, make in total what the team’s highest-paid player made this year.
That player, center Marc Gasol, sadly is out for the season with what we hope is a one-time foot injury. Mike Conley is also out for the season with Achilles issues that the team is trying to stop from leading toward something more serious. Those are the stars you know, though. What goes beyond that is an unending list of contributors that rank as too long to name for this preview – this is why Chris Herrington has your back, if you’re looking for further research.
In the wake of all the uncertainty – Jeff Green is a hero, now he’s lost somewhere in the corner, now he’s been shipped to Los Angeles, now we have Lance Stephenson, is that Jordan Farmar? – you have an expectedly inconsistent team that dropped well off defensively and in a lot of ways is lucky to be in the postseason.
All of Memphis might want to pull the Elvis/Robert Goulet treatment on this preview after seeing the word “lucky,” but it truly could have been a lot worse.
In the end, though, the Grizzlies minded their own turnovers, they caused a heap of miscues on the defensive end, and they worked their way to the line. And the playoffs, again.
The Spurs swept the season series 4-0.
Working without Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies fell to San Antonio on Nov. 21 in a snail-paced 92-82 loss. Marc Gasol played nearly 40 minutes but could only manage eight points and eight boards, while San Antonio’s throwback pair of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker combined for 33 points. The less said about this one, the better.
The next meeting between the two was somewhat sprightlier, but even while working with what they hoped had been their full component (All-Stars healthy, Tony Allen, Matt Barnes, Mario Chalmers, Jeff Green, Courtney Lee bounding around the fringes) of a playoff fixture, the Grizzlies fell by 20 at home. Kawhi Leonard put up 27 and eight rebounds for the visiting team.
It wasn’t as if the Grizzlies didn’t put up a fight in the prior two meetings, but the March 25 pairing was a lot closer, it involved some fourth quarter intrigue, and some outsized offensive work. The Spurs still won, 110-104, working against a Memphis team without Gasol and Conley, featuring Chris Andersen, Jordan Farmar, and JaMychal Green (a team-leading 20 points) in the starting lineup. Still not enough.
Three days later, working in Memphis, the Spurs once again kept the Grizzlies at arm’s length in a 101-87 win. LaMarcus Aldridge put up a 31-point, 13-rebound line while Memphis was forced to throw out a lineup and rotation that they had no inkling they’d be forced to employ back in October. Andre Miller started for San Antonio. Ryan Hollins played for Memphis.
Likely Starting Lineups
The Memphis version, if you’re just catching on, might sadden you. If you’ve been ignoring the Spurs all year, on the other side, you might wonder how exactly this team could only make it as a second seed.
The Memphis Grizzlies started 18 different players this season, and unless Dave Joerger makes some matchup-inspired workaround as we head into the weekend, the team will start Chris Andersen at ostensible center, Zach Randolph in the low post, and Matt Barnes to finish out the front court. Jordan Farmar and Vince Carter will act as starting backcourt. Yep.
The Spurs will get to play big and run Tim Duncan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard up front, with Danny Green at off guard and Tony Parker at point.
Bouncy Memphis big man JaMychal Green did start against San Antonio twice in March with Zach Randolph out, and while he scored nicely in short time (32 points in 52 minutes) he pulled in only eight rebounds during that span.
Matchups to watch
• San Antonio vs. The Clock: Not the idea that pegged them as too slow to keep up with Byron Scott’s New Orleans Hornets in 2008, but the idea that wonders if games 83 through 87 could act as a detriment to 94 and up. San Antonio wants to play for two more months, and how they approach week one of eight will be telling.
Most will pick the Spurs to, at worst, take this series in a Gentleman’s Sweep. On top of that, with Memphis’ starting lineup lacking and the bench looking even flimsier, the Spurs seemingly could handle things with nary a peep from the stars on hand.
Coach Gregg Popovich isn’t exactly going to sit players out, and he needs to sustain a rhythm heading into the second round and beyond (especially if San Antonio has eight days between Game 4 of this series and Game 1 of the next – a very real possibility). How Pop minds the minutes allotment, however, will be fascinating.
• Memphis helpers vs. Their New Deals: Apologies for returning to the fait du’accompli, but the overwhelming chunk of the active Grizzlies roster is working for contracts – perhaps one last contract – next season.
Prospective free agents no longer need to do their best work on national TV in order to impress prospective employers, and the Grizzlies were on national TV three times in the season’s final five nights to top that, but it wouldn’t hurt for some of the veterans involved here to put up a nice showing in the face of a rising salary cap and plenty of room to move this summer.
How San Antonio Can Win
If the team minds its possessions, finds the post and doesn’t send pell mell Memphis would-be heroes (we’re looking at you, Lance Stephenson) to the line, the Spurs should have an easy time of it. We’ve already spent too long bashing Memphis’ current roster makeup, but, let’s face it – this is supposed to be a practice round for the Spurs.
How Memphis Can Win
Barring one of the great upsets in NBA history or, cross your fingers, catastrophe, the Grizzlies cannot win. Then can, as always, make a showing – and that means forcing turnovers, changing sets from game to game, and attempting to pressure the San Antonio backcourt either when they’re in setup or scoring mode.
Totally Subjective Entertainment Value Ranking: 2 out of 10
Outside of the ability to watch some knockout low post play from both sides (and that’s just hoping Zach Randolph can have his way amongst the trees) there just isn’t a whole lot to look forward to in this series. Pity, considering this will be the rubber match following spirited pairings in 2011 and 2013.
Prediction: San Antonio in 4.
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